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n the first two weeks of September, Puerto Rico was ravaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Irma battered other Caribbean islands, including St. Martin, Dominica, and Barbuda, before its eye passed just off the north coast of Puerto Rico in the early hours of September 7th. Hammering its disinvested infrastructure, the storm left more than a million on the island without power; one week after the hurricane, 273 schools remained closed. Barely recovered from the flooding, Hurricane Maria took a deadly swipe at the island on September 20th. Communication was cut off for many; the electricity grid went down completely. The silence was terrifying for the hundreds of thousands of family and friends sending messages that remained unanswered. In the aftermath, the scope of the devastation began to emerge. Like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the damage that the storm caused was only the beginning of the crisis. Residents, many having lost their homes, still face acute food and fuel shortages almost two weeks later; many of the island’s most vulnerable, those who need oxygen, dialysis or insulin to live, the old and the very young, have not been reached or served by the island’s already inadequate healthcare system. Indeed, although official estimates put the death toll at 34, many argue that the count is inaccurate since numerous deaths were triggered by the hurricane but ultimately attributable to the island’s deep debt crisis that has starved public services to make good on odious debt owed to hedge funds brokered by opportunistic banks like Goldman Sachs and Banco Santander.
The weekend following the hurricane, Puerto Ricans demanded relief and supplies from the federal government, whose initial paltry response enraged many, especially as compared to the resources mobilized in the weeks before for relief efforts in Houston and Florida. A chorus of officials, including the Lieutenant General who took over the beleaguered Katrina disaster relief effort, asked “Where’s the cavalry?” The calls for a rapid increase in the scale and caliber of the relief effort—especially a swift military response—were punctuated again and again by the reminder that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. From Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Roselló, to Hilary Clinton to diaspora advocates, critics framed the Trump administration’s anemic response to the disaster as a disregard for fellow Americans. Indeed, just two days after the storm, a research firm conducted yet another poll of mainlanders’ basic knowledge of the legal status of Puerto Ricans and found that nearly half were unaware that they were “fellow citizens.” And although this result is not surprising, the truly remarkable finding of this exercise, in my view, was that while 64 percent of respondents overall supported more aid to Puerto Rico, the number increased by only 4 points when the question included a prompt that stated Puerto Ricans’ citizenship status. In short, most respondents were clearly moved in their support for aid by the scale of the humanitarian disaster, not the legal status of the people left without food, water, or power. Perhaps the public can be forgiven for their confusion on the status of Puerto Ricans, as well, for they are the largest group of citizens that belong to an “unincorporated territory,” which includes the US Virgin Islands, also devastated by hurricanes Maria and Irma. Puerto Ricans have officially been members of a Commonwealth since 1952, essentially enshrined as a second class who do not benefit from some of the basic protections of the constitution and other laws, including the possibility to declare bankruptcy, which has left the island in a powerless position vis-à-vis its nefarious creditors.
Indeed, again and again, Puerto Ricans remind mainlanders both of their status as citizens and their de jure and de facto status as a second class of citizen. In March of this year, for example, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece warning of the costs to mainlanders of the Puerto Rican debt crisis titled “Puerto Rico’s debt portent: The refugees’ exodus builds and will add to the U.S. dole.” In the last decade, the island has lost nearly 10 percent of its population as many have been forced to leave an economy wracked by austerity. In response to the WSJ’s opinion piece, protest petitions circulated on the island demanding that the paper retract the article for its labelling of Puerto Ricans as refugees. In the Huffington Post, historian Harry Franqui-Rivera wrote a compelling reframing of the problematic at the root of this particular citizen/refugee debate: the outcome of the Supreme Court rulings on Puerto Rico in the early 20th century (as part of the famous “Insular Cases”) left Puerto Ricans as, what he calls, foreigners in a domestic sense. Indeed, political scientist, Charles Venator-Santiago, puts a sharp point on the byzantine legal framework of 11 different laws on the status of the island and its people in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Puerto Rico exists as a legal contradiction, he explains: it is “an unincorporated territory that can selectively be treated as a foreign country in a constitutional sense.” As forced migrants of the economic crisis over the last decade, Franqui-Rivera argues, Puerto Ricans are treated as aliens on the mainland and thus the refugee label, while untrue in a juridical sense, describes the experience of many Puerto Rican migrants. In short, the island’s residents can selectively be treated as refugees in a social, cultural, and economic sense.
This is not the first time that the clarion call of “we are citizens” has arisen in the wake of a socionatural disaster. Those of us who remember the devastation of hurricane Katrina and its disaster capitalism aftermath will recall that residents of New Orleans reacted strongly against media outlets who described them as refugees when journalists surveyed the desperate scenes of the Super Dome and the Convention Center. Their outrage was powerfully captured in Part III Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke. Lee splices together different media reports using the term and then cuts to New Orleans residents’ reactions to the label. It’s a powerful segment (starting at minute 21). Residents are grappling with being separated from family, forcibly moved to other parts of the U.S., having lost their homes: the label “refugee” is an additional indignity, for some, the last straw. They express their outrage: “What kind of shit is that…” Gralen Banks, Third Ward resident and community activist, tells Lee, “refugees… damn when the storm came in it blew away our citizenship too?!...I thought that was folks that didn’t have a country.” The film cuts to the Reverend Al Sharpton’s press conference on September 2nd, exhorting the media to stop calling New Orleans residents refugees, “these are American citizens, that, in most cases, were very viable tax payers.” Geographer Neil Smith, in his widely circulated piece on the hurricane, “There’s no such thing as a natural disaster,” insisted on calling the storm’s victims—primarily low-income and African-American, many trapped in the sweltering heat in camp-like conditions for several days—refugees. In a note on his choice of words, he wrote “George Bush has declared that ‘these people are not refugees, they are Americans.’ The effort at such a distinction is doubly cynical. It seeks to sanitize the experience of the approximately 400,000 people displaced, evacuated and evicted from New Orleans by bestowing on them some kind of superiority and respect not normally given to ‘refugees.’” In short, he argues that the distinction between citizen and refugee—and logic behind “help us because we are citizens”—too easily validates the status of refugees, or any non-citizen, as less worthy of humanitarian aid in a disaster.
Twelve years have passed since hurricane Katrina, and today the world is in the third year of the worst refugee crisis since World War II. The week after hurricane Maria, the Trump administration set new limits on refugee acceptance to the US at 45,000, the lowest cap since presidents began setting limits in 1980. It is hard not to interpret the plaintive and frustrated reminders of citizenship status coming from Caribbean peoples in US territories, colonies really, as a clear, strategic attempt to make sure to fall on the “right side” of the state’s obligations to human beings. But there is another lesson to be learned from the demand for recognition as citizens that arises at the insular and coastal margins of U.S. empire in the wake of disasters: a clear sense that the very category of “citizen,” premised upon white supremacy in settler colonies like the U.S., has never been a secure status for income-poor people, especially people of color. Indeed, through the prism of US neocolonialism in the Caribbean and the Philippines, we can see that the prevailing logic in the U.S. was to restrict extending citizenship to more black and brown people as the country’s empire extended beyond its shores. The Dominican Republic and Haiti, where I have done research for more than a decade, are excellent examples of this effort. The U.S. directly controlled Dominican customs – the country’s main source of tax revenue—from 1906 to 1940, and occupied the country from 1916-1924; the marines invaded again in 1965. The U.S. occupied Haiti from 1915-1934 and has exerted extraordinary influence over the country for more than a century, not least following the devastating 2010 earthquake when sovereignty was turned over to a control board to “manage” reconstruction efforts, co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton.
We should be wary of criticisms of Puerto Rican relief coming from members of the U.S. military in light of the rapid response to the Haitian earthquake: yes, the U.S. military mobilized quickly, but the swiftness and agility with which U.S. armed forces land en masse in Haiti is not something to celebrate. I am not denying the desperate need for immediate assistance in the wake of disasters, but bear in mind that the first actions of the U.S. military in Haiti immediately following the earthquake and before recovery efforts had started was to leaflet the coasts warning Haitians not to seek refuge via the sea:
“If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case… [they will] send you back home from where you came.”
In short, the rapid U.S. military response to political instability and socionatural shocks in Haiti has been motivated, in the first instance, by the more than century-old doctrine of constructing Caribbean peoples as threats to the U.S. body politic, in homologous ways to the construction of post-emancipation slave descendants in the U.S. It’s no wonder that New Orleans citizens rejected the refugee label so strongly; the stakes are high.
The reason why Puerto Ricans were granted their “separate and unequal” status as citizens is historically specific, but in the context of U.S. Empire we learn that this treatment was part of a broad debate over how to administer racialized others, deemed culturally inferior, without extending full citizenship rights. Anti-imperialism on the part of U.S. elites, writes José Cabranes “was a political expression of contempt for the peoples of the new territories.” In line with centuries of Eurocentric doctrine that held that the Rights of Man were the exclusive purview of white male elites, the U.S. sought various legal forms to control foreign territories while avoiding the incorporation of their inhabitants into the body politic. For instance, we can recall President Woodrow Wilson’s acerbic response, cited by Greg Grandin in Empire’s Workshop, when asked whether he would annex the Dominican Republic: he was as likely to do so as “a gorged boa constrictor would swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to.”
What history demonstrates powerfully is that the boa has had to swallow the porcupine all the same, and under conditions consistent with the metaphor: those of domination and subordinate incorporation. Since the imposition of neoliberal reforms in the Caribbean and Central America, and in the wake of U.S. proxy wars in that region, and more recently in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the causalities of U.S. empire have been forced to flee to its shores. Puerto Ricans do so under better juridical conditions as U.S. citizens, without the need to lobby for temporary protective status and to live under the threat of its termination, as Haitians do now ever since Trump threatened to end the program. In reflecting on the abuses of power that have created hierarchies between citizens and non-citizens whose fortunes are profoundly shaped by the U.S., a not-so-foreign power, I am sympathetic with the late Neil Smith’s principled position that, from the perspective of social justice, we should resist fomenting the idea that only certain categories of people called “citizens” can claim the right to disaster relief. This point is especially true in our current moment where so many nation-states—and especially the U.S.—are shirking their responsibility to refugees. But I also want to take Puerto Ricans’ and New Orleanians’ urgent demand—dammit we are citizens!—as an imperative to make the category a meaningful claim to equal entitlement, regardless of race, gender, or economic status. These two avenues—a principled, internationalist refusal of distinctions between citizens and non-citizens when it comes to humanitarian aid—and a demand for full inclusion in citizenship—should not be mutually exclusive. And the need to navigate between them is more urgent than ever for two reasons: first, the erosion of rights among racialized citizens in the U.S., and, second, the climate crisis, which is super-charging socionatural disasters in the Caribbean and beyond. On the first point, the reader should take a look at the Puerto Rico syllabus, a brain trust put together by Yarimar Bonilla, Marisol LeBrón, and Sarah Molinari, to better understand the economic crisis and its colonial origins, and how marginalized people, especially youth of color and queer youth, are facing the brunt of punitive policing and the drug crisis in the wake of economic collapse. This sort of scholarly work, along with community activism, is already foregrounding how the island’s uneven development creates fissures in the ways that aid and relief are and will be distributed, circuits that will continue to marginalize black communities and rural residents if not explicitly addressed. This important work reminds us that any claim to citizenship is already fraught by race and class divisions.
The final point is simply the one that hangs over the entire edifice of who has rights to humanitarian relief in the wake of disasters. The climate crisis promises only to exacerbate these claims and disputes over them as more powerful storms, fires and droughts continue to wreck livelihoods and drive people out of their homes. Here, we can follow the climate justice movement and work with activists and like-minded politicians to continue to push back against the fundamental injustice that was in such sharp relief during the horrendous 2017 hurricane season: those who are least responsible for climate change are facing its direst consequences. Those of us in the minority world, places that have accumulated based on this injustice, must support the movement fighting for just reparations, which will mean fighting for large-scale relief efforts following socionatural disasters—for citizens and non-citizens around the world—and the extension of permanent, legal status to those who are forced to migrate as the climate crisis unfolds, in the first instance. In doing so, we will have to follow the lead of activists who understand all too well how disaster capitalism unfolds in the wake of relief efforts in order to mobilize in support of just infrastructure and just transitions over the longer term.